Tag Archives: Bath

In memory of Douglas Nicol – former Bath Councillor

Douglas Nicol was a man who greeted with back slaps, booming smiles and sparking eyes but it was the way he gifted the most subtle of kindness that I will remember him by.

I first met him when working for Don Foster MP in Bath and Douglas was a newly elected councillor. He was as hard working a councillor as he was insistent that I join him in the pub after a day’s work. It is a memory of one of these such occasions that resonates as my main memory of him and what I wanted to share now after hearing of his death.

We were walking through the centre of Bath towards the sort of pub you have to duck through the doorway to get into – all low ceilings and eccentric locals. We were going to meet some of Doug’s friends to watch the rugby and enjoy a few beers, perhaps two of the things he enjoyed the most.

Douglas knew me reasonably well by this point and he also knew that at this time I had less than little money. As we walked Doug stopped to get money from a cash machine and handed me a £20 note. I looked quizzically at the note and then him. With sparkling eyes he said it was so I could buy his mates the first round of beers. The only way he insisted, to introduce yourself to his friends.

Everyone, myself included, would have thought Douglas a top guy if he had gone to the bar and paid for a round for me. But this small act which was more about enabling friendships than anything else optimised his endless thoughtful and unassuming kindness.

This anecdote could have been pulled from hundreds of different examples of his kindness. Someone who didn’t spend enough time with Douglas (or someone who had spent too much time with him) might have missed these small acts, but they were littered into his day to day life, into his actions as a councillor and into the very way in which he approached people.

I am sure he will be missed by many. RIP mate.

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The race to replace Don Foster as MP for Bath

Don
The race to replace my old boss, Don Foster MP, has finally formally got going.

The Bath Chronicle reported that the short-listed candidates to stand on the Lib Dem ticket for Bath in 2015 are:

  • Chris Lucas
  • Steve Bradley
  • Manda Rigby (Lib Dem, Abbey)
  • Andy Furse (Lib Dem, Kingsmead)
  • Martin Turner
  • Wera Hobhouse

I have written before about how big a pair of shoes they have to fill with the departing of Don Foster. But on initial reflection there are some extremely competent candidates on the shortlist to stand in what might be one of the few truly safe Lib Dem seats.

I wish all the candidates the best of luck. I would also love to hear who you want to see as the next MP for Bath and why…let me know in the comments below.

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Having depression in public life

mind_logoWill Sandry, a Liberal Democrat Cllr on Bath and North East Somerset, has announced that he is taking a minimum of 3 month leave to give himself time to address what he describes as his “depressive illness”.

Will has had the deeply difficult situation of having what is essentially a personal and private issue forced into the public light. The silver lining is that people have, so far at least, responded with empathy and support even in the usually rancid comments section of the local paper.

Will’s honesty about his illness will no doubt make a small difference to people in and around Bath. It will help raise awareness of the nature and severity of depression (about one in ten of us will be affected by clinical depression at some point in our lives although the symptoms of this can vary massively – statistically that is around 8,000 of Bath’s 80,000 residents).

My heart goes out to Will because I have seen the impact depression can have on people’s lives and I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it must be to then have to air your own depression publicly for people to pick over and worry about.

I often feel a twinge of unease when private matters such as a divorce are mulled over in public. This feeling is somehow amplified when the private matter is a condition the person has no control over and which leaves them feeling vulnerable and out of sorts anyway.

In light of this I have no idea how Will is feeling at the moment but I send him my heartfelt best wishes for the coming months.

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Working with Don Foster MP

For about a year and a half I worked for Don Foster MP who today announced that he would not be standing for re-election in 2015. Here a few reflections on what it was like working for him. 

Don

Don was first elected to the Bath seat in 1992 when he beat the then-chairman of the Conservative party Chris Patten. He was then re-elected with sizeable majorities on four separate occasions serving Bath over 5 parliamentary terms.

I am happy to debate the legacy of his 18 years in opposition and the last three years in government. For now though I wanted to write a little on what it was like working for Don as I think this hits at the heart of why so many consider him to be a fine MP.

The first thing that jumps to mind is his formidable work ethic. 80 hour working weeks became a norm for him spending his weekends back from Westminster attending both public and local Liberal Democrat events in the constituency.

I remember once slumping into the local leisure centre at 7:30 in the morning to go for a swim before work. On the way in I bumped into Don bouncing out of the gym with a huge smile on his face cracking some joke about having a running start to the day.

And this was perhaps the second thing that springs to mind about working with Don – his sense of humour was superb…even in the face of cock ups from his staff.

In the lead up to Christmas 2011, the local press failed to spot a spoof press release about Don’s renowned ukulele playing. The press release intended to invite them to Christmas drinks but in jest invited the press to Don’s launch party for his bid to become Christmas number one. Failing to spot that this story was a spoof it spread rapidly all over Europe with articles appearing in major national and international media – ‘Liberal Democrat MP in Christmas number one bid’. This story was then replaced with the ‘Liberal Democrat MP forced to deny he’s releasing Christmas single’ stories.

A bit of a cock-up.

It would have been understandable for an MP to be pissed off in such a situation. Instead Don took it all in his stride. That year, all his staff received big Christmas presents wrapped up – we all got our very own ukuleles.

To clarify, I am not saying he couldn’t be a grumpy git, he of course could be. But more that considering how hard he worked and the nature of his work he was impressively good natured about it all.

This good humour gave him a foundation on which to interact with people on a very personal level. Watching him interact with a room full of strangers – all of whom would normally know him – was impressive. He just had a way with people that didn’t stem from that stereotype that politicians have of ‘smoothing’ people, but from a genuine interest in people.

I remember sitting with Don just before he was due to go live on BBC Radio 4’s World at One. I was sat holding, and inexplicable reading to myself, a sheet of paper about key lines for the interview. Just before going on air he turned to me and started asking, not about the upcoming interview on national radio, but about a constituent whose case we working on at that time.

Casework for Don, it felt to me, wasn’t just an obligation or even an election strategy like it is for some MPs, but a reflection of his commitment to his constituents and actually caring about what happened to them.

This trait – of giving a shit about people – reflected in the way he showed interest in his staff. I left working for Don to work as a human-rights monitor in the West Bank. When I returned I had been back in London less than a week when he invited me in to have a chat about what my plans were for my next employment. He was eager to help and to ensure that working for him was a building block for me to go onto whatever I wanted to do next.

Don’s politics differ to my own but after working for him for 18 months I can say with certainty that he is a nice guy, an exceptional MP and that the constituents of Bath are lucky to have had him at their service for the last 21 years.

Today Don has been quick to remind everyone that he still has another year and half left to go until he steps down in 2015 and I don’t for a second think he is going to take his foot off the peddle in that time.

I wonder though when that time comes whether he will remember how to put his feet up or whether he will find something new to throw himself into?

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The Government’s decision to implement a breathtaking 7.2% increase in beer duty is outrageous

Community pubs like the royal oak in bath may be a thing of the past if the beer tax continues to rise

The Government’s decision to implement a breathtaking 7.2% increase in beer duty is outrageous. This takes the average duty and VAT on a pint in a local pub to over £1. We now have the second highest rate of beer tax in Europe! It is simply not acceptable. The “beer escalator” commits the Government to increasing beer tax above inflation and to the wrong policy path.

Take Bath as a case in point, nearly 2,000 people depend on Beer and pubs for work and the industry contributes over £22.7 million to the local economy every year. If it continues to shrink in the manner it currently is, local economies such as Bath’s will be severely hit. At a time of recession, this tax seems to be the opposite of what the struggling industry needs.

Equally, this extra tax will do nothing to stop the irresponsible drinker but do everything to hit the responsible pub goer. It will add on 10p to every pint in the pub, while the Government’s much talked about minimum pricing of alcohol will cap supermarket booze at a price that wouldn’t deter the stingiest of consumers. It is ludicrous to allow cheap supermarket booze, whilst taxing pub goers “for health reasons” at the same time. These measures penalise the majority of responsible pub goers whilst failing to tackle the heart of the problem which remains the question of why people consume such vast amounts of alcohol (often at home not in pubs).

At a time when 37 pubs are closing down every week in the UK, we need to be supporting these centres of our community, not putting them out of business. Where do Cameron and Osborne expect the big society to meet…the local Scout hut?

SIBA chairman Keith Bott said, “This is a real kick in the teeth to the local brewing sector, one of the few British success stories of recent years. Local brewers are just the kind of business this government says it wants to see prosper: they create jobs for local people and contribute to the local and wider British economy by using home-grown ingredients. Yet the current beer taxation regime is killing off our main route to market – the British pub.”

He continued, “The Treasury claimed before the Budget that their beer duty escalator is ‘baked in’. We say it is half baked! Continuing to increase taxes on draught beer, drunk in the socially responsible environment of the pub, will serve only to increase purchases of cheap vodka for unsupervised home consumption. We fail to see how this policy can help tackle binge drinking.”

The Government’s claim to being a “pub friendly government” seems to be slipping further and further out of sight.

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The Spanish, the homeless and Christmas – some reflections!

The ignored reality of homelessness - Photo is from Chirs Hall (flickr)

Brussels is a wonderful unique city to be living in during the run up to Christmas.  It has wonderful Christmas markets, live music and with the recent downfall of snow, a real feeling of Christmas cheer.  Recently however, I had a sobering experience that made me reflect on the nature of societal divisions within Brussels in stark contrast to the Christmas cheer that I have been enjoying in the last few weeks.

Let me paint you a picture.  Last Saturday I had spent the whole day walking in the Ardennes (south Belgium); I came back to Brussels to watch Arsenal demolish Hull (3-0) before meeting up with a Spanish friend of mine to celebrate his birthday.  Despite the bitter weather (-9 in the city centre), lots of friends made it out to celebrate.  Being typically Spanish my friend had arranged to meet at 22:30, and the party lasted until the early hours.  I had a really fantastic evening.  Walking home (in bitter winds and heavy snowfall), I came across a group of homeless people who were lying on the street side exposed to the elements.  How I reacted to this situation reflects a lot on how we as a society view homelessness.

I stopped, and stared and the pure injustice of a collection of men lying in sub-zero temperatures with nothing more than a blanket to warm them hit me hard.  It repulsed me to see that this could be happening in a modern European city.  I felt myself shivering with the cold (wearing a ski coat, hats, gloves etc).   In my slightly inebriated state I stood still for well over 2 minutes to think what I could possibly do in this situation.  The sad truth dawned on me that right there, in that drunken moment; there was absolutely nothing I could do.  One gentleman lying on the ground spotted me and struck up conversation.  In my French (which improves dramatically after many beers…I think) we talked briefly about how terrible the weather was.  He seemed surprisingly jolly about the whole situation.  Despite his optimism, he was visually shaking.  I strongly suspected that his optimism was fundamentally based on a cocktail of drink and drugs to get him through that freezing night. 

As I walked away, I felt more for that chap than any sober person could.  My heart bled for the pure injustice of the whole situation.  As I walked, my sorrow and sadness slowly evolved into a massive sense of anger at a system that allows for this situation to exist.  Reflecting on these thoughts the next day (in a clearer state of mind), I vowed to myself that I would work to do something about this.  In the UK, this would be easier (no language barriers).  I am aware of organisations like Emmaus and Shelter working for homeless people.  In Bath (where I lived for a number of years) I am aware of the hostel Julian House that provides nightly food and shelter for the homeless.  In Brussels however I felt flummoxed about what I could do.  Trying to help individuals only goes so far, it does not tackle the underlying reasons for the homelessness.   For every bowl of soup you hand out another person slips into destitution. 

This is not to say that handing out hot food is not beneficial.  Indeed, it can often be a life line.  It is however, fundamentally wrong that it is left to individuals and charities to try and provide support for those who have slipped through the state safety nets. 

Homelessness is not a problem in itself.  It is largely a symptom of other ills in society.  Some of the main causes of homelessness include mental health issues, substance abuse, unemployment, prison release and forced eviction.  The situation that I experienced on the streets of Brussels is reflective of our inability to tackle these underlying issues. 

These issues need to be tackled at a national level, with effective planning.  Until this happens, what can we do?  Is there anybody reading this that can offer me advice?  Is there really nothing more I can do other than hand out soup and look sympathetic?

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